Islam

A Living Faith

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Natana DeLong-Bas
  • Winona, MN: 
    Anselm Academic
    , May
     2018.
     334 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781599828657.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As someone who teaches introductory courses on Islam and Muslims nearly every semester, I have tried many different variations of textbooks as well as compilations of book chapters, articles, blogs. Every textbook written for students will inevitably be idiosyncratic, written to the context of the author’s specific academic institution as well as their methodological approaches. Some textbooks work better than others overall and some work well only in specific institutional contexts. Natana J. Delong-Bas’ book, Islam: A Living Faith, is aimed at undergraduate students, presumably in the North American context, and would be especially poignant at a church-affiliated institution, although it could also possibly work elsewhere.

A specialist in Islamic sectarianism, with a focus on Wahhabism, Delong-Bas is a clear and concise writer who knows her audience and presents up-to-date awareness of her subject matter. Delong-Bas highlights the goal of her book by explaining that it “aims to contribute to the constructive dialogue, to explore Islam as a living practice, not just a belief system, of individuals and communities” (11). She also specifically states that the book focuses on contemporary issues and lived Islam while offering historical context that provides a nuanced approach. That said, her approach seems to be fairly basic, perhaps due to her target audience, as she states, “If there is ever to be global peace, understanding, and cooperative coexistence, it must begin with knowledge, rather than fear, of the religious Other. It is in that spirit that this book was written. Readers are encouraged to set aside the fearful headlines and consider Islam in its entirety as a living faith” (12). Rather than problematizing the fact that some Americans fear the “religious Other,” Delong-Bas assumes that her audience is Christian and does not try to rock their boat by allowing them to see Muslims as fellow humans rather than a friendly “other.” 

The book has a scattering of black and white photos, maps, and charts, but it is primarily text-centric. It is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter covers the significance of the five pillars for Muslims but does not offer historical context. Surprisingly, by the third page when she discusses the term ummah and introduces the history of the pillars, Delong-Bas broaches the issue of radicalization. This section is factual and brings in examples of the pillars practiced in everyday situations; it also integrates topics, such as extremism, that students enjoy learning about but that professors of Islam do not usually introduce at the beginning of a course on Islam. Many instructors build up slowly to being able to introduce sensitive topics such as extremism into the classroom, making sure their students are well developed in their understandings of the basics of Islam and Muslim hermeneutics. The end of the chapter briefly explains the difference between the pillars versus sacraments in the Christian context. The remaining chapters are thematic, covering the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, sectarianism, Islamic law, Sufism, Jihad, gender issues, and Muslim-Christian encounters. The topics of the chapter are presumably guided by choosing the basics as well as in the most controversial and misunderstood issues when it comes to Muslims in North America.

Delong-Bas is careful not only to present Islam as normative and prescriptive, but also to show the nuance of Muslim practice and belief across the spectrums, such as when she discusses how and where women pray in relation to men, making note of the various set-ups of prayer and the unequal access some women experience in these spaces (24). She also highlights interesting examples from contemporary Muslim experiences, such as mentioning Hajj Maria ‘Ulfah, a well-known female Qur’an reciter from Indonesia, in the chapter on the Qur’an; Amina Wadud’s leading the first women-led prayers in 2005 in the chapter on women and gender; and The 99 comic book series in the chapter on Muslim-Christian encounters. The book would have benefited from including more of these cases. Delong-Bas covers complicated topics in a short distance; in her chapter on Shariah and Islamic law, she covers the historical context of Shari’ah, fiqh, and how Islam functions in society, and then she does an excellent job discussing the negative impact of colonialism on Islamic law as well as critiquing how some “Islamic” states are often disconnected from pre-modern practices of Islamic law and “often repeat the mistakes of European authorities” (153). She broaches challenging subjects such as hudud punishments in countries like Pakistan but also is firm in her argument that these do not always reflect the intention and message of the Qur’an and earlier Muslim legal scholars. In the “Women and Gender” chapter, Delong-Bas debunks myths and stereotypes about Muslim women and then covers movements such as Islamic feminists, concepts such as gender justice, and even includes a section on discussions around the “saving” of Muslim women, referring to an article by Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” which many professors of Islam in North America teach in their courses.

The book makes numerous brief references to interesting debates and controversies, but it would have benefited from going into more depth and offering examples in the main text instead of just in the footnotes. With useful review and discussion questions that can be incorporated into the classroom at the end of each chapter, the book could possibly be used in courses on Islam in church-affiliated institutions. It would most probably not work in secular private or public institutions. Islam: A Living Faith represents a commendable effort to present Islam and Muslims in a simple but critical introduction that would work in classrooms at church-affiliated institutions in the North American context or in a secular classroom—that is, if one were to take out a few short sections. The concise and clear writing, as well as its frequent references to contemporary experiences of Muslims, make the book stand out as being accessible to students from Generation Z as well as relevant to teaching Islam in the 21st century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rose Aslan is Assistant Professor at California Lutheran University.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Natana J. DeLong-Bas is Associate Professor at Boston College, where she teaches Theology and Islamic Civilizations and Societies.. She is coauthor of Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018) and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (Oxford, 2013).

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